Where British rock ’n’ roll was born

Teenager Andrew Ings left East Anglia for the big city and found himself at the birthplace of British rock ’n’ roll. Fifty years on, he’s helping to honour its memory. Steven Russell reports

IT owes so much to chance... Lunchtime on an autumn Monday in 2006 and Andrew Ings is after a sandwich and a drink. He’s spent the morning working at Queen’s Theatre in London – part of Sir Cameron Mackintosh’s West End empire. Andrew, there to advise on safety issues, pops round the corner into Old Compton Street and finds a crowd of people, barriers and film cameras. “I basically ignored it. I’d seen it all before in London and just thought they were shooting a soap opera,” he says. Instead of gawping, he finds a caf� and spends about 45 minutes enjoying his lunch.

“As I came out, two guys my age walked past, immaculately dressed as teddy-boys. I did a double-take. ‘What’s going on?’ ‘Oh, they’re unveiling a plaque to the 2 I’s Coffee Bar.’ Well, at that moment my afternoon plans changed. I think I was probably meant to go to a meeting in another theatre, but my memories are a bit hazy!”

In the early 1960s, for a couple of years or so, Andrew had been part of the bedsit crowd. He worked as a general dogsbody at – funnily enough – what’s now the Queen’s Theatre. Back then it was staging Stop the World I Want to Get Off.

One night, after work, someone suggested going for a cup of coffee and listening to some skiffle – a type of popular music with its roots in jazz, blues and folk. “I was up for that. I was into Lonnie Donegan (acclaimed as the King of Skiffle), Rock Island Line and all that.” The workmates went to The 2 I’s in Old Compton Street. “It was cramped and crowded. Today, legally, in that space you’d perhaps have 30 or 40 people; there were probably about 80 down there! But the atmosphere was fantastic: it was alive; it was electric; nobody was drunk.”

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After that, Andrew probably went to The 2 I’s two nights a week, on average. The coffee bar had opened in the mid 1950s and went on to build a reputation as the birthplace of British rock ’n’ roll, hosting artists in the early days of their careers – folk such as Cliff Richard, Tommy Steele and Adam Faith, and the ingredients that would form The Shadows.

Andrew describes it as “the fuse for the explosion that was to come in the world of British rock ’n’ roll”.

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He isn’t alone. On that lunchtime in 2006, the City of Westminster unveiled a plaque honouring The 2 I’s as the “Birthplace of British rock ’n’ roll and the popular music industry”.

Andrew smiles. “If I’d come out of the stage door that lunchtime and turned right instead of left I’d probably have known nothing about it!

“It all came flooding back and I spent the rest of the afternoon talking to a lot of the guys there – and thought ‘There’s got to be a book in this.’”

The plaque ceremony led to annual reunions of folk who loved the old place. Andrew went to one and chatted about his idea to Keith Woods, who runs a music magazine. Keith helped no end in engineering a string of interviewees to talk about The 2 I’s.

As one-time regular Betty Osment said, “Where else could you have counted Cliff Richard, Mickie Most, Bruce Welch, Hank Marvin, to name but a few, amongst friends at that time? I was there when Tommy Steele got engaged to Ann. . . I remember Bruce’s wedding to his first wife . . .”

She explained: “The 2 I’s was a small place, but it had something: an indefinable something. Maybe it was us: teenagers, the first breed. Maybe it was post-war austerity; maybe it was Blackboard Jungle, Elvis; but that era has never been re-created.”

Andrew’s book Rockin’ at The 2 I’s Coffee Bar is a collection of similar memories that evokes the atmosphere of Soho in the 1950s and ’60s.

Andrew explains how the basement was where the magic was created. “It was a melting pot for musicians and their music.” The premises were quite small: possibly no more than five metres wide at ground level and maybe nine metres long or so.

The Irani brothers who owned the building used the first letter of their surname to give the caf� its moniker.

Its star really began to rise, Andrew says, from the spring of 1956, when the lease was taken over by Australian wrestlers Ray Hunter and Paul Lincoln. That year crowds squeezed in to watch artists at the birth of their careers – such as Cliff Richard, Tommy Steele and Adam Faith. “By March 1957 it had become the premier coffee bar and attracted visitors from all over the country.” The 2 I’s became a magnet for managers and agents looking for fresh talent.

Coffee bars were places where teenagers without much money could haug out. “There were other bars in Soho, but the leading venue for us – where you could listen to skiffle and early rock ’n’ roll – was undoubtedly The 2 I’s. It was an exciting place for a teenager, despite being very small and rather dingy.”

From the coffee bar area, customers went down narrow stairs to a basement about the size of a large bedroom, lit by a couple of weak bulbs. “At one end were a few milk crates with planks on top of them, which everybody assumed was the stage. And there may have been some sort of microphone system, left over from the Boer War . . . The nearest toilets were probably Piccadilly Circus Station.

Later on, the walls of The 2 I’s were decorated with a few photos of musicians who’d once played there . . .” Air-conditioning? No. “Everybody was sweating and smoking in those days. It was really a very unhealthy situation. But everybody loved the place.”

A man called Bob Jackson spent coffee breaks in The 2 I’s, as well as enjoying the music in the evenings.

“I remember having coffee with Hank Marvin when he and his group were off duty. I missed seeing Tommy Steele at the coffee bar, but years later he parked his Jaguar outside our premises and came in to buy some decorating materials.”

Clem Cattini explains how the band he was part of in the late 1950s was phoned by Paul Lincoln and asked to go to The 2 I’s, where they joined in a jam session. The drummer went on to play on the Tornados’ hit Telstar and, as a session musician, is linked with about 45 chart-toppers, including The Kinks’ You Really Got Me.

There are little anecdotes aplenty.

A 14-year-old Francesca Annis – all pigtails and pedal-pushers – once came in with musician brother Tony and sang Freight Train. She later became one of our most acclaimed actresses, of course.

Bruce Welch, of Shadows fame, found The 2 I’s in the spring of 1958. It was a place for wannabees. Bruce had teamed up with Hank Marvin, working four nights a week for the equivalent of 80p for a four-hour set.

Apparently, one day Hank was offered the chance to join Cliff Richard’s band, The Drifters. Which he took – as long as he could bring mate Bruce with him. The band later became The Shadows. Andrew Ings can’t really remember whether he saw anyone who later became famous. “I’m showing my age now, because it was about 50 years ago, and names and memories do blur,” he laughs, “but the overall memory is of a vibrant, if you like beginners’, stage.

“The guys who stood up and sang with a guitar, they were good, they were bad or they were indifferent. But at least they had a go. The magic was there. Where today can you do that, apart from a street corner?”

He’d grown up in London. Then his family moved to Clacton-on-Sea when he was 12. Clacton had a lot of amusement arcades around its Butlin’s holiday camp and juke boxes belted out the sounds of Bill Haley and other early rock ’n’ rollers.

“At 16, 17, we used to hang around – looking at the girls, as you do – listening to Jerry Lee Lewis, and it was fabulous.” Being introduced to The 2 I’s at the age of 18 or so, then, was right up his street.

After his spell in theatreland, Andrew had 13 years with Essex County Fire Service, but a knee injury put paid to his career as a fireman.

He then spent three years as a safety officer on North Sea oil rigs before becoming a training manager for a company and then lecturing for the British Safety Council. Andrew, who has lived in the Braintree area since 1974, is now retired.

The passage of time also brought changes for the Soho coffee bar.

“The early 1960s saw the beginning of a change in the music scene and, with the coming of The Beatles and The Cavern in Liverpool, places like The 2 I’s began to lose their influence,” he explains.

Fittingly, The 2 I’s didn’t linger long in the new decade of the 1970s.

Today, it’s enveloped in the larger and shinier Boulevard Bar and Dining Room. It’s a bit disappointing now, says Andrew, for the basement that used to vibrate to skiffle and rock is now home to the loos, cleaners’ cupboard and so on – “all the functional bits!”

Be that as it may, its role in the history of music is assured.

“I often say to people ‘When did British pop music start?’ And they say ‘The Cavern in Liverpool, with The Beatles.’ Well, it wasn’t. It was ’55: The 2 I’s.”

Cliff: I won’t forget that sweaty little cave

SIR Cliff Richard was one of those who shared memories with Andrew Ings, explaining how he’d yearned to be Elvis – complete with quiff.

“Me and my friends were still in school but about to leave. Of course, we knew that Tommy (Steele) and, quickly on his heels, Terry Dene, had been discovered at The 2 I’s and we were desperate to get there to compete,” explained the singer born Harry Webb.

“So one night we just showed up and said we’d like to play, and they said ‘Okay, come back next week.’ It was as easy as that. We played every night from Monday to Friday – and absolutely no-one discovered us!”

One thing that did happen was that a guy running a ballroom offered them a job one night “and, because he wanted a name to front The Drifters, ‘Cliff Richard’ was born”.

He said playing at The 2 I’s “was awesome for us as young musicians – having a nightly audience that was excited by what we were doing was fantastic. I’ll never forget that sweaty little ‘cave’ in Old Compton Street and us with our new shirts bought specially for the occasion”.

The basement was a vital foundation stone. “I played to my first rock audience and, though I wasn’t ‘discovered’ there, I did discover myself. I knew what I wanted to be, and had the feeling that I could make it!”

Music to our ears

ANDREW Ings will talk about The 2 I’s Coffee Bar, and its role in British rock music, as part of the Essex Book Festival. His event is at Manningtree Library on March 9, at 7.30pm. Box office 01206 573948. Web: www.essexbookfestival.org.uk

n Rockin’ at The 2 I’s Coffee Bar is issued through Book Guild Publishing at �9.99. (ISBN 978-184624-583-1)

Andrew’s involved with a British Rock ’n’ Roll Heritage Show at the Halstead Empire Theatre on Sunday, March 27 (7.30pm). The bill includes Clem Cattini and Brian “Licorice” Locking’s Out of the Shadows Band. Tickets are �15. Booking and inquiries: 07778 025 490

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